Money and Monkeys

Stephen DeAngelis

October 6, 2008

There are analysts on both sides of the debate about whether development is good or bad for the environment. On the one side there are those who argue that more development will inevitably wreak more havoc on the environment. On the other side are those who argue that once populations reach a certain level of prosperity they begin to care about and protect the environment. There are no black and white answers. Even the people most concerned about the environment are not so heartless as to be unconcerned about people living in poverty. They would simply like to see them progress in an ecologically friendly way. The trick is getting a developed country through the “dirty” transition period during which most of the environmental damage seems to occur. One scientist concerned about saving a species of monkey in China — whose existence was being threatened by human activity — decided that the monkey could be helped best by helping the humans who threatened them [“It Takes Just One Village to Save a Species,” by Phil McKenna, New York Times, 22 September 2008]. The monkeys, known as white-headed langurs, live in the Nongguan Nature Reserve in Chongzuo, Guangxi province. A decade ago, these langurs looked destined for distinction.

“In 1996, when the langurs were highly endangered, Pan Wenshi, China’s premier panda biologist, came to study them in Chongzuo at what was then an abandoned military base. This was at a time when hunters were taking the canary-yellow young langurs from their cliff-face strongholds, and villagers were leveling the forest for firewood. Dr. Pan quickly hired wardens to protect the remaining animals but then went a step further, taking on the larger social and economic factors jeopardizing the species. Dr. Pan … believed that alleviating the region’s continuing poverty was essential for their long-term survival. In the 24-square-kilometer nature reserve where he has focused his studies, the langur population increased to more than 500 today from 96 in 1996.”

Dr. Pan discovered that you don’t have to get an entire country to be conservation-minded to have an environmental impact. Nor do you have to improve the economic conditions throughout an entire country to have an economic impact. Dr. Pan discovered you can foster economic progress a village at a time and do it in an environmentally friendly way.

“‘It’s a model of what can be done in hot-spot areas that have been devastated by development,’ said Russell A. Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International. ‘Pan has combined all the elements — protection, research, ecotourism, good relations with the local community; he’s really turned the langur into a flagship for the region.’ Part of what makes Dr. Pan’s achievements so remarkable is the success he is having compared with the fate of primates elsewhere. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s most recent Red List, nearly half of the world’s 634 primate species and subspecies are in danger of extinction.”

Dr. Pan’s experience is unique because the area he focused on had been somewhat developed (it had once been home to a military base), but at the same time it was terribly undeveloped and impoverished.

“When Dr. Pan arrived in Guangxi, the challenges of studying langurs, much less protecting them, seemed insurmountable. He and a student spent their first two years living in collapsing cinder block barracks with no electricity or running water. At that time, the langur’s population was in freefall, dropping from an estimated 2,000 individuals in the late 1980s to fewer than 500 a decade later. Historically, local farmers had occasionally killed langurs for food, but then teams of outside hunters began taking a serious toll on the population.”

The hunters, Dr. Pan claims, killed the langurs and sold their meat to newly wealthy politicians and businessmen who wanted to impress their guests by serving them game meat. Dr. Pan realized that he couldn’t protect the langur population by himself. In order to foster the support of locals, however, he knew that he had to help them improve their living conditions.

“A breakthrough in protecting the species came in 1997 when he helped local villagers build a pipeline to secure clean drinking water. Shortly thereafter, a farmer from the village freed a trapped langur and brought it to Dr. Pan. … As self-appointed local advocate, Dr. Pan raised money for a new school in another village, oversaw the construction of health clinics in two neighboring towns and organized physicals for women throughout the area. ‘Now, when outsiders try to trap langurs,’ Dr. Pan said, ‘the locals stop them from coming in.'”

Protecting the langurs was only one of the challenges Dr. Pan had to overcome. He knew he could not save the species if its habitat was destroyed. The well-meaning villagers were stopping hunters, but still cutting down trees for fuel. They were still dependent on the reserve’s trees for fuel. Dr. Pan realized that he couldn’t ask the villagers to make a choice between saving the langurs and feeding their families. So he went to work again to help the village.

“In 2000, he received a $12,500 environmental award from Ford Motor Company. He used the money to build biogas digesters — concrete-lined pits that capture methane gas from animal waste — to provide cooking fuel for roughly 1,000 people. Based on the project’s success, the federal government financed a sevenfold increase in construction of tanks to hold biogas. Today, 95 percent of the population living just outside the reserve burn biogas in their homes. As a result, the park’s number and diversity of trees — the langurs’ primary habitat and sole food source — has increased significantly.”

Although encouraged, some environmentalists lament that Dr. Pan’s model is not quite perfect. His success has stirred the entrepreneurial souls of those who want to profit by creating an ecotourism sector in the region.

“Nearly all money for Dr. Pan’s development projects has come from outside the region, but his efforts have not gone unnoticed by local officials. In 2001, the county government built a research center in the reserve with accommodations for Dr. Pan and his students, a guesthouse and a yet-to-be completed education center to showcase the region’s biodiversity. Still, those who would like to exploit the scenic beauty of the park remain. One recent proposal included a five-star hotel that would turn the would-be education center into a gambling hall and cockfighting pavilion.”

It seems a bit incongruous that people who want to promote ecotourism would also support cockfighting. I suppose they would argue that chickens are endangered. I guess I’ve always assumed that environmentalists were also animal lovers. The jobs and infrastructure that the ecotourism would bring to region would probably be welcomed by those living in the area. Developed in an environmentally friendly way, it could prove to be a boon. To read about what others are doing to develop tourism in an environmentally friendly way, see my post Going Green in Libya. Dr. Pan is trying to remind the local population that it is the caretaker of environment.

“In 2002, when Dr. Pan inaugurated the Chongzuo Eco-Park, a small part of the Nongguan Nature Reserve that is open to the public, he had a quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius carved into stone at the front gate. The phrase, ‘In an ideal society, everyone should work for the well being of others,’ was a subtle reminder to local officials that the park should not be misused for their own financial gain. But the quote also reminds those looking to protect the langurs that they must consider the area’s human community. ‘This is the most important thing we can do,’ Dr. Pan said. ‘If the villagers can’t feed themselves, the langurs don’t stand a chance.'”

Dr. Pan’s model for promoting development and conservation can work elsewhere. Unfortunately, most impoverished villages don’t have exploitable ecotourism resources that can be used to leverage the future. Nevertheless, the more tools that those working on eliminating poverty can put in their kit the better. Seeing a conservationist take the lead in helping a village develop is very promising. Cooperation and collaboration among many different groups is going to be required if the challenges we face are going to be countered.